State of Emergency

State of Emergency The book s beginning is gripping and it maintains this tone and pace for about the first half I was engrossed and wanted to learn what happens.Then the sections on Revanthi and Stella slowed things considerably Revanthi s interview rehashes what s been told earlier and feels artificial, and the story ambles along Also, there s something about her that feels shallow, undeveloped Stella s interrogations drag down the pace even I know there were many sessions but at this point, I started to question if they would amount to anything Those interrogators reminded me of similar ones in The Sympathizer that the Communists conducted I enjoyed the book and the writing is generally solid It s not American English and at certain points, I wondered if it was a typo or a mistakethe awkward writing at these points brought the book to a screeching halt But I wanted to find out what happened to the characters that started the book And we do The conclusion is bittersweet. This is a very well written novel about a topic I knew nothing about Tiang leads the reader through a particularly violent period in the history of Malaya Malasia Singapore, complete with political an military struggles The plot is revealed by means of several narrators, each loosely connected to the others, who present us the story from diverse viewpoints There is love, violence, family, and politics galore throughout the book, and it was not easy to put down. Winner Of The Singapore Literature Prize For FictionFinalist For The Epigram Books Fiction PrizeSiew Li Leaves Her Husband And Children In Tiong Bahru To Fight For Freedom In The Jungles Of Malaya Years Later, A Malaysian Journalist Returns To Her Homeland To Uncover The Truth Of A Massacre Committed During The Emergency And In Singapore, Siew Li S Niece Stella Finds Herself Accused Of Being A Marxist ConspiratorJeremy Tiang S Debut Novel Dives Into The Tumultuous Days Of Leftist Movements And Political Detentions In Singapore And Malaysia It Follows An Extended Family From The S To The Present Day As They Navigate The Choppy Political Currents Of The Region What Happens When The Things That Divide Us Also Bind Us Together I read a fifth of this While the story was moderately interesting, the characters never came alive enough for me to want to see how it all turned out. One of the best books I ve read so far this year Jeremy Tiang writes an unforgettable novel about generations of young men and women caught up in leftist movements in Singapore and state repression thereof I enjoyed Tiang s sharp character work he has a gift for giving his characters a depth that invite sympathy even as he s not above subtly mocking them the strait laced devout Christian, the self righteous academic, the unhappy explosive father This did much to make his novel a fascinating reconstruction of Singapore history rather than the flat didactic dramatisation it could so easily have been. A wonderful novel written in gentle prose that emphasises, rather than conceals, the steel of its content State of Emergency explores Singapore s and Malaya s political history leftists, communism, detention without trial, state corralled confessionals through the lens of an extended family The book is about traces and tracing the eddies Siew Li leaves behind when she vanishes into the Malayan jungle letters in an abandoned flat a translated interview a signature on a confession a journey up the spine of Malaya rubble behind a woman s teeth a Bible tract in the lap of a dying man and about how, despite the amnesia and fragmentation wrought by the violence of state regimes, some things remain indelible and brave and resolute I loved it, mainly because despite its themes, it is not at its core a cynical book. State of Emergency is my Jeremy Tiang book and definitely not my last In fact, I think it s one of my top reads so far this year And to think it s also a book that I never thought I d read This book takes us through the lives of a communist rebel fighter, her family and a British journalist as they navigate through different circumstances from the years during the Malayan Emergency to the present day This is a period of our history that isn t talked about so often or even covered in history lessons in school, so it s quite an eye opener for me to read these stories and to learn that they are based on actual, real life events I think it s pretty amazing, too, how this book is so ambitious and yet there s never a point where it feels like Tiang is merely info dumping In fact, there s something about these experiences that are so genuine and emotional I don t think you need to be familiar with the history in order to empathise and or immerse yourself in the stories and that s like, top level historical fiction, if you ask me.The stories that State of Emergency tells us are so necessary, important and altogether, so very engrossing I can definitely see why it won the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize for Fiction. One of the best books I have read this year Tiangwrites excellently and this novel covers some important moments in Singaporean history, dealing with leftist rebellions and Singapore s relationship with Malaysia and Britain, pre and post independence The story is told in the third person but with each of the six chapters focussing on a different character We will learn what connects them and most will appear in than one chapter Each has their own story, self contained, but only fully understood in the wider context The novel deals with themes including colonialism, post colonialism, leftist politics, labour movements, capitalism, guerrilla warfare, political detention, human rights and Not only a tremendous literary accomplishment in its own right, but arguably a must read for anyone wishing to better understand the region.Full review here. I made sure to read this book after it won the Singapore Literature Prize this year 2018 I read two other nominees in the Fiction category, and really wanted to see why this one beat them, especially Sugarbread which I really liked State of Emergency gives us a rare and important look at the leftist history of Singapore and Malaysia, which is only vaguely taught in school The author s immense research shows in the little details about the lives of the Communist guerillas, their family, and everyone else during the Malayan Emergency and after The book is made up of 6 different parts, each from the perspective of a new and different narrator They re all related, most by blood in the same family, a few by acquaintance or as friends Unfortunately, only the last two parts Stella s and Henry s really stood out to me The pace and action finally picked up in those two parts, and I was actually engaged in the character s journey, whereas the earlier parts felt too much like detailing history in a matter of fact way Most of the time I felt like the events and exposing of truth were of a focus than the characters, especially at the parts where there was really so much narration than dialogue, and that s not the kind of writing I personally can easily immerse myself into.The writing is simple and at times beautiful, telling many diverse sides to history in a largely understandable way And that s really impressive and awesome, because our history of Communism is super complex and needs to be told, seeing how it s still kept so hush hush by the Powers That Be even today. A couple stuck in time stares at potential readers and buyers of the book This arresting image never leaves you once you open up the book and read the epitaph from Walter Benjamin s The Philosophy of History and translated by Harry Zohn The history of the oppressed teaches us that the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule A page after, Mollie Remedos died in the explosion that tore apart MacDonald House on 10 March 1965 Jason, Mollie s brother, swore revenge on the bombers and tasted justice when they were hanged on 17 October 1968 But his instinct for revenge feels blunted after fifty years have passed Nothing has changed and he still feels the loss of his sister.And he also loses his wife, Siew Li, to the same political turmoil The married couple and four other people closely connected to them lose their innocence and livelihoods in very similar ways Jason lives and dies in Singapore without ever meeting his wife again Siew Li dreams of being a hero for Singapore and joined communist movements before getting separated from her husband and children Nam Teck remembers his father being dragged to the forest and his mother and him moved about in fenced villages until he had enough and went to the capital city of Malaysia Revathi s parents tell her all about the Emergency as she begins to venture to Malaysia for a news scoop that will shock her life Stella, Siew Li s cousin, is in detention without trial for activities linked to communism And Henry, Jason s and Siew Li s son, pays his respects to his father before searching for his mother in the outskirts of Malaysia.All six cannot blame each other or themselves for their problems because their worlds are always in a state of emergency A new emergency can rise up from nowhere and politicians must find scapegoats and sacrificial lambs to appease their citizens.Even if the emergency is nonexistent.These six stories show a Singapore and Malaysia that don t belong to the official Singapore narrative the government has conjured up It shows a Singapore paranoid by the first Indonesian president Sukarno s rise to power and his communist party and a Malaysia torn apart by racism Despite being set in different periods of time, the two countries are always alarmed by any sudden moves They do not mind jailing or killing people cold blooded in the open.The most powerful chapter in the book has to be Stella s imprisonment Based on anecdotes on a real incident, her stories show how easy it is to be gaslighted in the Singapore prisons Her interrogators questions her intention on helping foreign workers and whether she knows what she is doing is what the communists want All Stella cares is that it s not fair for them to be treated poorly, but the interrogators argue their way with the coldest logic that can only be derived from the principles of meritocratic societies Do you want us all to be the same You think everyone in society should earn the same money That s not possible Some people work harder than others, some people are cleverer If we did what you people want, then our society will never progress, and soon our women will have to go and be maids in other people s countries are Stella, we know who you are, you don t have to pretend any Other people in your ring have already confessed You want to destroy our society You want to bring us all down to your level Stella, we know that you are a communist Any sign of sympathy or empathy is seen as communistic behavior in Singapore Nobody is born equal and deserve the same rights as others Singapore is where it is today because it is unfair and unequal according to this logic.And Cheng Mun, one of the interrogators, believes in that without any sense of shame In fact, he says to Stella that she shouldn t be ashamed either She could do much as a department head than the lowly position of a teacher We live in a meritocracy if you earn money then it s because you re clever, you work harder than others Why do you talk about being fair all the time Do you think some people earn so much I never said that, said Stella But you complain that these maids, these people you are trying to help, they earn too little If some people earn too little, then some people must be earning too much Am I right Her feeling of helplessness she feels in every interrogation session makes her wonder if this is really what she was saying Is she indeed helping the Communist cause in the Philippines to overthrow the Singapore government That line of reasoning is impossible to argue in her mind and it is as if every word that came from her mouth could be turned round to condemn her further Maybe she is a card carrying communist threatening the establishment of Singapore And she should be ashamed for her actions, for trying to help raise awareness for the maids who are paid low wages or none Her rallies may be well intentioned, but the interrogators show that they really are tools for the Communist parties to cause discord in Singaporean society.That is how the political process of gaslighting worked and you find yourself intertwined with the bizarre doublespeak logic the government has forced upon you It is the Orwellian nightmare come true but somehow worse This guilt Stella has is real and needs to be felt by many people.Because the state of emergency is the history of Singapore and Malaysia in this novel Whoever the government blames becomes the victims and perpetrators at the same time according to history Whether it be Siew Li who merely helps out organize perfectly legitimate campaigns or Stella who is doing God s work for the needy and the poor, everyone is a criminal and a casualty No one can escape this psychological state of emergencies, which has now been mandated as a statute in the law books.What can be salvaged can only be done through a rekindling of who has survived this mess A little bit of hope still exists, but hoping requires willpower and bravery There are still plenty of stories untold in this lost history of time and it feels like the book is encouraging its readers to seek of these kinds of tales.I may be a bit biased in my speculation because this isn t explicit in the text but in a talk by the writer in a Kinokuniya and Epigram Books panel last month Together with fellow Epigram Fiction 2016 finalist O Thiam Chin, Jeremy Tiang talks about what it means to write a book about Singapore.The society of Singapore is often seen in the perspective of English educated Singaporean Chinese and that is blinding He wants to write against that A translator of eclectic Chinese writers like Zhang Yueran, Tiang wants to show what the other sides think of the country He notices that communism in Singapore is barely talked about in English texts, despite its close ties to the independence of Singapore So most of his sources according to his talk come from untranslated Chinese books about the communists in Singapore and Malaysia.He is also a stickler for historical accuracy as he has traveled to all the locations mentioned in his book, even if he admits that there s probably nothing since it s all in the past While he does let himself some artistic license, he is very meticulous with his facts which is present in the book Tiang also gives little care about the controversy from Stella s chapter, which may have caused the National Art Council to withdraw the grant money he says that it is all based on accounts left by people who underwent the detention and stands by them and their pain.And the book really thrives on his passion and empathy for the people who have lost their lives to the various emergencies in Singapore and Malaysia This isn t a perfect book at all there are scenes that go on forever and it doesn t always read nice aloud I also feel it may have benefited from some historical context too since I got lost in the book a couple of times But there are many strong moments scattered throughout the book and it shows a part of history no one seems to know about.That often means it will be uncomfortable, grueling, and challenging for anyone reading it It shows the historical reality of life before us and how we should respect them as we move forward We can still find some kind of harmony after these tragic events as long as know how to go past them and the lost time can be regained when we learn to hold each other s hands again Adapted from The Singapore Political Novels Let s Give It Up for Gimme Lao and State of Emergency.

Jeremy Tiang is the author of State of Emergency 2017, finalist for the 2016 Epigram Books Fiction Prize and It Never Rains on National Day 2015, shortlisted for the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize He won the Golden Point Award for Fiction in 2009 for his story Trondheim He also writes and translates plays, including A Dream of Red Pavilions, The Last Days of Limehouse, A Son Soon by Xu Nu

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  • Paperback
  • 280 pages
  • State of Emergency
  • Jeremy Tiang
  • English
  • 07 September 2019

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